Category: home science

The Home Scientist Continues!

“RickH” here. I’ve been working with the new owner of The Home Scientist (Ben Siciliano) to rebuild the web site and move it to a new hosting place.

If you have followed along with Barbara’s blog, you might have noticed that Barbara and Ben have come to an agreement for Ben to take over The Home Scientist business. I’ve been working with Ben to get the site rebuilt with new design and some content changes. Most of the changes have been in the ‘back-end’, using PHP functions for commonly-used items to allow those items to be more easily changed.

There will also be a new customer support forum (not quite ready yet) for customers.

The site is available to you, gentle readers (and lurkers), for a ‘beta read’. If you could take a look at the pages to make sure the content looks consistent, and try out the “Buy Now” buttons (make sure you cancel the order on the PayPal checkout page), that would be helpful. You can use the Contact page on the site for any issues or comments.

The new site is currently at . I’d appreciate if you spending a few moments to poke around the site.

Here’s the announcement that will appear on the site (once per day).

I would like to formally announce that The Home Scientist is under new ownership!

Since 2011, the Thompsons have produced a line of high quality, high value science kits in chemistry, biology, and forensic science. To honor their tradition of service, we will continue to offer these kits, which as you’re probably aware, had been created to provide a meaningful laboratory experience for students and enthusiasts – something increasingly difficult to come by these days.

Over the next several weeks, we will be re-stocking the complete line of kits and making it easier for you to obtain technical support for the experiments covered. We’ll also be starting a new customer support forum area.

We’ll be making some changes to the look of this site as we move to our new hosting platform, but our products will still have the same high quality. We thank you in advance for your patience, and welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions for improvement. Please use the Contact Us page for questions or comments.

I’m looking forward to being of service.


Ben Siciliano, the new owner of TheHomeScientist LLC

Ben is restocking all the kits, and hopes to have them all ready by the end of the month.

Thanks for your help on being a ‘beta reader’. And thanks to Ben for agreeing to continue The Home Scientist as Robert and Barbara intend.



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Wednesday, 12 March 2014

09:35 – Thanks to reader L. Daniel Rosa, who sent me the following link:

This is not a toy. It’s a serious instrument, albeit one the size of a standard microscope slide and a cost of only $0.50. They’re calling for 10,000 volunteer beta testers, each of whom will use the microscope to do something of their choice and write up a short lab session, protocol, or whatever. These will be winnowed and combined into an open-source biology/microscopy manual. I’m going to submit an application to be a beta tester as soon as I post this. I’d encourage any of my readers with any interest at all in microscopy or citizen science to do the same.

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Monday, 31 October 2011

08:44 – Edward P. Lazear in the WSJ points out something that should be obvious to anyone. The EU problem is too much government. Unfortunately, the only “solutions” they’re considering involve more of what’s caused the problem in the first place. It’s apparently impossible for politicians even to consider that government is the problem, not the solution. And the US has the same problem, albeit not quite as advanced.

Instead, EU politicians blame the market, the ratings agencies, and indeed anything else they can think of other than themselves. They’re now apparently seriously considering implementing a horrible idea that’s been simmering on the back burner for a couple of years now. A so-called “Tobin Tax” on financial transactions. Basically, the idea is that by making it more expensive for traders to trade they’ll reduce volatility in the markets.

Their problem is that, as Sweden found out in spades a few years ago, a Tobin Tax must be implemented globally. When Sweden implemented a Tobin Tax, the markets simply abandoned Sweden and moved their trading elsewhere. The vast majority of market activity in the EU already occurs in London, so implementing a Tobin Tax in the eurozone would simply cause essentially all of the little remaining market activity in the EU to relocate to London and New York, where it would not be taxed. The EU’s solution to this is to attempt to force the Tobin Tax on the UK (which has a veto over such things) and to lobby the US to implement such a tax. It’s not going to work, any more than any of the EU’s other “solutions” have worked. We’re really well into the endgame now.

10:51 – Hmmm. I just finished writing up a lab session on Mendelian inheritance, and realized that I might have a serious problem. Back when we were in school, everyone did the PTC tasting thing, but it was typically done with just the students in a classroom. This lab session is a bit different…

“Testing unrelated individuals provides some useful data, but ideally you want to test as many related individuals as possible so that you can follow inheritance of the PTC tasting and non-tasting alleles through generations of families. Testing both parents and their children is good; testing parents, children, and all four grandparents is better still. Best of all is testing the full extended family, with aunts and uncles and cousins.”

Most of my readers will immediately spot a very serious potential problem there, so I added the following warning:

Any human genetic testing, including this lab session, potentially has serious ethical implications. Many families have at least one “skeleton in the closet” that they’d prefer to keep hidden from the world at large. You are obligated—morally, ethically, and possibly legally—to maintain the absolute privacy of your test subjects by refusing to disclose the data you obtain to anyone else, including the test subjects themselves.

For example, in one of your family groups of test subjects you might find that both parents are non-tasters, as are all of their children except the eldest. You might conclude that that child was adopted or had a different father. Disclosing that conclusion TO ANYONE is a serious ethical violation, and may have direct and indirect consequences you cannot imagine. If you discover such an anomaly, KEEP IT TO YOURSELF.

Also consider this: you are not a geneticist, so you may be wrong.

12:02 – Jerry Coyne comments on Science publishing a new phylogeny of the mammals.

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Saturday, 23 July 2011

10:45 – My poor FedEx guy must hate me. Yesterday, he delivered several large boxes that contained a couple thousand polyethylene dropper bottles in different capacities and a hundred laboratory splash goggles. I’ll use the dropper bottles to build prototypes and initial inventory for the biology kit that goes with the home biology lab book I’m working on now, as well as in a future forensics kit and possibly some others. The goggles are included in all kits.

In all of the discussion about the Euro crisis, the UK hasn’t gotten much attention other than in that country’s newspapers. From what I’ve read in UK newspapers ranging across the political spectrum, I think it’s safe to say that there’s been a sea change in the attitudes of UK subjects. Previously, a substantial majority were in favor of the UK’s membership in the EU, and the electorate was roughly equally divided pro and con on adopting the Euro. The current numbers are dramatically different. A large majority now opposes joining the Euro–no surprise there given recent events–but the really significant change is that UK voters are now about 3:2 in favor of withdrawing from the EU itself.

They rightly perceive the course of the EU shifting even more strongly toward a fiscal and political union, neither of which is acceptable to a large majority of Brits. Ideally, most Brits would prefer to return to the original common market concept, where trade barriers were minimal but each country retained its own currency and full sovereignty. Even in the absence of full fiscal and political union, Britain has found, as Thatcher warned, that the obvious benefits of EU membership are far outweighed by the hidden drawbacks. Despite the fact that the UK is not a member of the Euro, British taxpayers subsidize other Euro members. For example, a significant percentage of the €50 billion in annual agricultural subsidies paid to French farmers comes out of British pockets. Nor are all the economic costs so obvious. For example, fishing rights have for years been a bone of contention between the UK and the EU.

When all is totaled up, it’s clear that the UK is suffering economically from its membership in the EU, with the economic benefits far, far outweighed by the direct and indirect economic costs. If the EU fractures, as I expect, into one group of wealthier northern nations and a second group of poorer southern nations, I expect to see the UK join the northern group, if indeed it chooses to join any union at all.

12:14 – The morning paper had an article about people flocking to the local Borders for its going-out-of-business sale. The store is advertising “up to 40% off”, which really isn’t much of a deal, even if it applied to most things. One woman quoted in the article mentioned that she’d bought several books at 10% to 20% off list price, which is no deal at all, particularly since all sales are final. As she said, she could have gotten them cheaper at Amazon.

Given the very limited selection at Borders–many publishers stopped sending them new books months ago–they’d have to be offering at least 60% off list on paperbacks and 70% off on hardbacks to temp me in there, and even at that I might not bother. Most of what I’d be looking for is fiction, and most of that I can get for $2.99 or less for my Kindle. And since my Kindle TBR stack is currently at something like 300 titles, I really don’t need any more fiction anyway.

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Friday, 22 July 2011

08:55 – Following the crisis summit, there’s lots of joy in the EU. The feeling among people who don’t understand much about economics is that Greece is saved, the Euro is saved, they’re all saved. Economists and market analysts know better. What the crisis summit accomplished was necessary, but by no means sufficient. All that it really accomplished was to put off the reckoning for a short time, perhaps 90 days or less.

In one very ominous sign, Bulgaria announced that it was putting its plans to join the Eurozone on hold indefinitely. In effect, Bulgaria said that it believes its own currency is stronger than the Euro. And it may well be right. This vote of no-confidence in the Euro will not go unnoticed by investors.

And, of course, Fitch has already declared Greek debt to be in default, with Moody’s and S&P no doubt soon to follow. We’re assured by the Euro authorities that this default is “partial” and “temporary” and “selective”, but as far as investors are concerned, default is default. Nor are investors stupid. They did notice that the crisis meeting left the EU bailout fund at its current level, when it actually needed to be at least tripled in size to have any hope of propping up Spain and Italy as their debt comes due. Investors also noticed that the crisis meeting did nothing to address the critical liquidity problem among European banks. In fact, it worsened it by demanding that the banks “voluntarily” take a hit to their balance sheets on Greek debt, albeit concealing the damage by allowing the banks to continue carrying essentially worthless Greek debt instruments at face value rather than market value.

As hundreds of billions of Spanish and Italian debt matures over the next few months, it’s going to become abundantly clear that the crisis summit accomplished nothing but delaying the problem for a few weeks. Even Keynesian economist Paul Krugman gets it.

Nor is it certain that Merkel and the other leaders of the wealthier northern European countries can deliver what they promised at the summit conference. They have their own legislatures and voters to worry about. German voters almost universally perceive past and future bailouts as simple transfers of money from their own pockets to profligate southern countries, and they’ve had about enough. In Holland, this whole fiasco has accomplished something previously thought impossible: Dutch political parties, from far left to far right and everything in between, are united in their opposition to these huge transfers of their money to southern countries.

So Merkel, Sarkozy, and other leaders are walking a very fine line. Supporting what was needed to actually solve the problem would end up with them and their parties being routed at the polls. That solution, beginning with Eurobonds and ending with full fiscal and political union, is simply unacceptable to voters in Germany, Austria, Holland, and Finland. And rightly so, because the inevitable result would be a united Europe as the world’s newest third-world country.

Anyone who works with plasticware in a lab should keep the chemical resistance of various types of plastics in mind. If it weren’t for the high cost, the various Teflon plastics would be ideal. They’re resistant to almost anything, and anything they’re not resistant to is something I probably don’t want to be using anyway. Polypropylene (PP) and the polyethylenes (LDPE and HDPE) are, with some exceptions, pretty resistant to most chemicals. Polyethylene terephthalate, PET, is most familiar as softdrink bottles. It’s transparent, while PP, LDPE, and HDPE are translucent or opaque, depending on thickness and type. PET is also resistant to most dilute chemicals as well as alcohol and some other organic solvents. What it’s not resistant to, among other things, is concentrated strong acids.

So, yesterday I was down in the lab, making up 2 liters each of various chemical solutions. I was using 2-liter PET Coke bottles as mixing vessels. Among the solutions I was making up was 0.1 M iron(II) sulfate. Like most iron(II) salts, iron(II) sulfate has a nasty habit of spontaneously oxidizing to the iron(III) salt, with the spare iron ions reacting to form insoluble iron hydroxide and iron oxides. The result is a cloudy mess. The way to avoid that is to have sulfate ions present in excess, which is most easily done by adding a small amount of concentrated sulfuric acid to the iron(II) sulfate solution. So there I was, with about 1.5 L of distilled water in a clean 2-liter Coke bottle. I started to add 8 mL of 98% sulfuric acid, and realized as I started to pour what was going to happen.

Yep, as I trickled the concentrated sulfuric acid into the bottle, it ran down the inside of the bottle and instantly started depolymerizing the PET. My pretty transparent bottle turned cloudy white as the PET went from the transparent amorphous form to the opaque semi-crystalline form. I quickly dumped the contents of the bottle down the drain before the PET depolymerized completely. I don’t often have do-overs when I’m making up solutions, but this was one of them.

09:27 – Here’s a pretty amazing video of a group of people in a small boat, at considerable risk to themselves, saving a young humpback whale that had become entangled in a gill net. Even a juvenile humpback could have capsized their boat or turned it into kindling. But the humpback seemed to realize that these humans were trying to help it, and it docilely allowed them to do so. At about 6:30 in, the whale is free. She puts on an incredible display of joy, or perhaps thanks to her saviors. (H/T to Jerry Coyne)

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